Fight Night (Unicorn Theatre)

With the campaign for the next General Election in full swing, Belgian company Ontroerend Goed bring their Edinburgh hit to the Tooley Street venue

Winston Churchill nailed it: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Don’t we just know it in 2015? On a night when the incumbent Prime Minister opted out of a public election debate – the gall of that, ladies and gentlemen – Belgian experimentalists Ontroerend Goed showed democracy for the manipulative and manipulable sham it is.

Fight Night was first seen in Edinburgh two years ago. It gives audience members a voting device and puts five actors through an onstage election that sits somewhere between a parliamentary process and a television talent show. It feels a lot more pointed now – after two more years of coalition government, with four more parties vying for some sort of power and a two-party system that just doesn’t work. Chuck in big business, bacon butties and Russell Brand and Fight Night looks like its punching down.

The show nibbles away at democracy. It takes a bite out of it here, then another bite there. Our first vote is on first impressions: five outfits, five bodies, five faces – eyes closed. I can’t have been the only one voting on attraction alone – but suddenly there’s an underdog, who, positioning himself as such in a pleading speech, soars up the rankings in the next round. There are regular evictions, with losers leaving the stage and the process.

Along the way, there are coalition talks that directly defy our decisions and candidates that retire from the race. Our host – a slick-suited smooth-talker – has a huge amount of sway: choosing who gets the mic, what questions they answer, and how they’re introduced. At one point, he steps into the fray as a candidate himself. (Note to Paxman, the electorate did not like that…) The whole process is fickle and superficial: a candidate trots out an all-out racist statement one round, only to say something perfectly reasonable and so storm the next.

Behind that, though, is a mistrust of a massive fundamental: that majority opinion rules supreme. "We’re the smallest group," one candidate speechifies, "but does that make us less important?" Time and again, the smallest groups outweigh the largest. It all comes down to how you cut it.

Fight Night makes its point and it makes it well. It’s a sustained, reasoned case, but it’s hardly thrilling theatre. It’s too forensic for that, too all-on-the-surface. Half-way through it starts to bare its teeth, testing us with unpalatable truths, only to return to an anodyne smile. All the while, it’s caught between playing the game it sets up for real and sticking to a script to ensure its point lands.

What happens, though, when you buck the broken system? There’s a rally, late on, for a Brand-style protest – to hand in our devices – then a call to occupy the stage, and, for a moment, there’s the possibility of something else, of derailing the event to find our own ending. To Winston Churchill we might reply: What about all those forms of government we’ve not yet tried?

Fight Night runs at the Unicorn Theatre until 3rd May.